Times Higher Education awards preview: celebrating the potential of UK universities to tackle the world’s toughest challenges


Last month, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced the reduction in the aid budget from 0.7 per cent to 0.5 per cent of gross national income – revealed earlier this year – would be reversed in 2024-25.

The government had broken its manifesto commitment to keep to the 0.7 per cent level in response to what the Prime Minister referred to as the “economic hurricane” of the Covid-19 pandemic.

This caused deep concern across the research and development community. It has been a source of great pride to see how our universities – from within the N8 and beyond – have delivered substantial work during the pandemic that has resulted in crucial interventions for populations around the world.

The N8 was one of many research focussed organisations that called for the cuts to be reversed. While we must apply scrutiny to the small print and do all we can to hold the government to this new pledge, it is nonetheless hugely encouraging that a commitment has been made to retreat from the decision made in the Spring.

To consider what could be lost by a failure to reconsider the reduction in foreign aid, we need look no further than a recent N8 project, which is nominated for International Collaboration of the Year as part of the Times Higher Education Awards, which take place on 25th November.

We are hugely honoured that the N8’s International Research Managers Group (N8IRM) has been recognised for its work from 2017 to 2021 in building an outstanding partnership with the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA), the partnership of sixteen leading African research-intensive universities.

The N8IRM highlights the strengths of the N8’s universities in global challenges research, co-ordinates collaborations and shares best practice. It provides a forum for peer-to-peer support and is self-managing, with a proactive approach to partnership across the N8 and is a model of how pan-regional groupings of professional services colleagues can self-organise and add value to research collaboration.

The N8 and ARUA collaboration is grounded in an equitable approach and led by the needs of the African universities, enhancing collaborations between two global place-based networks and providing funding that brings benefits to both Africa and the Northern Powerhouse, resulting in huge benefits for all parties.

It has simultaneously enhanced the international profile of the N8, ARUA and our respective members and allowed us to share expertise and capacity building from research to professional services.

The partnership began when the N8IRM contacted ARUA to explore the potential of collaboration. A joint workshop was subsequently held in Ghana in May 2019 where over 100 participants identified ten research themes and built relationships to underpin future collaborations.

The N8IRM worked with ARUA to define an agenda that gave the African researchers a platform to express their research challenges and strengths. The ARUA participants strongly welcomed this approach, commenting that it ‘made a nice change to be listened to’.

Funding from N8 universities was pooled together, enabling wider participation by ARUA members and providing the first opportunity for some of the ARUA Centres of Excellence to meet.

N8IRM worked with ARUA’s Centre of Excellence in Water to widen collaborations which play to both partnerships’ strengths. N8IRM mapped collective strengths in water and participated in an ARUA integrated water resources management course for early career researchers and held workshops with ARUA in Sheffield followed by a hybrid colloquium in Newcastle at the start of 2020.

While the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic posed challenges, the N8IRM group responded to the changed circumstances by holding more frequent virtual meetings which strengthened the collaboration.

This also enabled speakers from across the UK to cover topics that would support the ARUA partnership in other ways. These topics included decolonising research and how to design for hybrid forms of research collaboration that combine face-to-face and virtual events.

In March of this year, the N8 and ARUA partnership was extended into professional services, with research managers collaborating to deliver a virtual training module for a UK-Africa cohort in the International Research Management Staff Development Programme. Looking ahead, virtual seminars with ARUA’s Centres of Excellence in Water and Non-communicable Diseases are planned.

Funding generated by this collaboration includes four awards in the ARUA-UKRI GCRF Partnership Programme Research Excellence (in climate, food systems, water and post-conflict societies) and 1 award from the ARUA-UKRI GCRF Capacity building programme, with nine further awards having been conferred.

N8IRM is integral to the unique N8/ARUA collaboration, which has proven a vital means to investigate significant issues impacting upon the peace, security and wellbeing of millions of people. We are determined to build on what has been achieved in recent years as well as forming new partnerships that will allow the N8IRM to continue groundbreaking research that will help improve the world around us. 

Our fellow nominees in the International Collaboration of the Year category include projects that have made a real world impact on issues as varied as the safety of international humanitarian staff working in increasingly challenging and unpredictable environments, the creation of the world’s first e-learning resource to cater to the demand for mobile chest X-rays as a result of the pandemic and enabling former Soviet Republics to develop learning through resilience, and capacity-building in the face of adversity and crisis.

This is just a snapshot of the international collaborations being undertaken by UK universities, and illustrates that researchers across the UK are currently delivering pioneering projects that will help cement the UK as an R&D superpower for many years to come.

The Times Higher Education Awards will be a wonderful opportunity to celebrate what has been achieved during an incredibly difficult period for our sector.

For the N8IRM and for the universities, it is also an opportune moment to redouble our commitment to using the expertise within our research and innovation base to foster the international relationships and collaborations that will enable us to work with our colleagues across the world answer the questions that are holding back progress. The achievement of this – with the associated social, economic and health benefits it will bring – is made much more likely by the plan to reinstate the aid budget to its former figure.